‘The Captive Queen’ and a Summer of Reading

It’s that time of year, for me, where the days seem long, the to-do list short, and I’m left trying to find ways to occupy myself. I’m aware that this is one of my precious last summers where I actually get a substantial amount of time off, and I’m also aware that I have a lot of exciting things that I’ve already done, or that I’m going to do. But upon returning to England following my African adventure (read about it here), I found after two days of recovery my mind wondered what it was I could do to keep busy.

Arranging work shifts only takes one so far when they’re casual hours, taking what’s available rather than what you’d prefer. And similarly, with friends gallivanting across the globe on their own adventures, I’m rather limited in my socialisation. I have however found, or rather rediscovered, my summer life-saver – books.

During the busy semester time, I manage a page or two of any given book per night, mind usually full of other ideas, questions, and things that require my attention. So I’ve recently forgotten the joy of five hours on a sofa, hardback in hand, cup of tea to my right, and my world dissolving into something new. A form of escapism to leave the mundane summer days behind and adventure with the most courageous and creative of minds.

My book of choice this summer has been The Captive Queen by Alison Weir. When I was younger, all I would read were historical novels, delving into the private lives of Tudor princesses, imagining myself in their flowing bliauts trying to evade the spies who follow every shadow. It has been a long time since I have opened such a book, but I am so glad I did so a few weeks ago. Alison Weir is a remarkable historian and novelist, beginning her writing career with biographies of historical characters. It was while researching Eleanor of Aquitaine for her biography in the 1970s and 90s, that Weir began to wonder about filling the gaps in history with some poetic licence – this sparked a curiosity for the historical novel, and from that came Innocent Traitor, the moving tale of the Lady Jane Gray. It was some ten years later that she returned to Eleanor and thus created The Captive Queen.

Set over the entire span of Eleanor’s life and marriage with Henry Plantagenet (Henry II), the story unfolds of a fiercely determined woman, a scandalously passionate marriage, tempestuous altercations, and the struggle between love and power. Something I’d not previously known was that Eleanor, who was in her lifetime both Queen of France and Queen of England on separate occasions, was mother to the Young King Henry, Richard the Lion Heart, and John, King of England – three incredibly influential and notorious men of history. It was, therefore, inspiring to discover the life of the mother who loved and raised them, and risked everything for their lives and inheritances.

Whiling away hours at a time on my sofa, at work, and on a beach, I was captivated by the words that unfolded before my eyes, and felt that familiar pull into the life of the heroine so my waking hours were spent dwelling on her plight. Even when the book was out of my hands, the characters were not far from my mind and as I’d done so many times when I was younger, I began to find it difficult to keep myself distant, having been so powerfully drawn into the world of these conspiring courtiers.

Alas, as they all do, this book too came to an end – a satisfying one however, both in terms of the justice to Eleanor done in her twilight years, and the feeling that I have once again restored my love of reading.

I am now eager to find a new book to live in, having finished this just a few hours ago. I have several options adorning one of my many bookcases – will it be a Lee Child thriller, of which I’ve read several and find the drive and adrenalin enough to have me holding my breath on the train? Or Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void – I’ve read several adventure biographies over the last few months, am I ready for another perilous page-turner? Or perhaps a classic – Anna Karenina has been on my to-read list for many years and only recently purchased. Another strong woman caught in scandal.

All I know is that hopefully my hiatus in both reading and writing has now come to an end, and I shall find myself once more escaping between the sheets, cracking the spines, and disappearing from the world for a few hours each day. And just maybe I’ll remember to write about it too…

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